At Sonoma Horse Park

The drive into Sonoma Horse Park has a mysterious quality: as you hit the long winding driveway bordered by grapes, you certainly get the sense that you are truly in wine country; but where are the horses? The hidden treasure at the end isn’t given away until you approach the final straightaway, and instantly, a beautifully designed horse park unfolds before you.

For the past decade, Sonoma Horse Park has produced several top “AA” and “A” rated horse shows with some of the most exciting jumps and prizes on offer in the United States. In 2018 Derek Braun, founder and president of Split Rock Jumping Tour, brought his international show jumping event to California for the first time, and in 2019, the special Sonoma twist on the event made mystery turn to magic for all parties involved!

Building Better: Split Rock Jumping Tour

Derek Braun founded Split Rock Jumping Tour in 2015 out of what he saw as a necessity. As a rider with international experience, he knew that events could be better in the U.S., and he was prepared to work to create the changes he wanted to see. “My frustration with other shows in America; how shows were managed, the details that were incorporated, and just feeling like I didn’t get my money’s worth [led me to start Split Rock Jumping Tour]. I always wanted to try to do things a little bit better, a little bit more elaborately, and a little bit more detail-oriented,” Braun stated when we chatted about his shows and experience in Sonoma.

At the time, the rider and sponsor experience at shows in Europe was far superior to existing events in the U.S. European events offered better prize money and attention to detail, along with a “jumper only” schedule which allowed exhibitors time to rest and enjoy themselves at the event. Braun knew he could offer something similar. He began hosting a few small one-day jumper shows at his home farm “Split Rock Farm” in Lexington, Kentucky, and used these first shows as a way to gain insight into how to manage larger events.

SRJT Ribbons; photo © Alden Corrigan Media

In 2015, the Split Rock Jumping Tour (SRJT) began. The first two events were held at Split Rock Farm and offered FEI 3* prize money and a Toyota RAV 4 to the leading rider. The Tour’s strong start has steadily evolved to become a full-blown traveling road show. “In our first year we held two events – one in May and one in October. Since those first events, we have become so much more efficient. I think that is the biggest thing; we are able to predict and prepare for almost every variable we could encounter during each week. That ability only really comes with experience,” noted Braun.

As time marches on, the SRJT team has shown their mettle. From working with the massive crowds of the 3* Kentucky Invitational, held in concurrence with the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, to the smaller issues posed by inclement weather, footing, or anything else new venues may throw at them, they have managed to step up each time. “We have become better and more efficient at setting up and tearing down events and moving on to the next. Really, in the first year, my team was only able to handle one or two shows; our whole brain capacity went to figuring everything out for those events. Now when we go to each different facility, we are much quicker at knowing what is ‘right’ in each place.”

“An Unparalleled Show Jumping Experience”

Split Rock Jumping Tour is an experience, and to fully immerse yourself in it, SRJT recommends you participate in the “luxury of all-inclusive.” All FEI riders have the option to purchase a package that includes everything from stabling and class fees, to VIP hospitality, to stabling concierge services and special exhibitor events. Extra perks such as extravagant awards, a full bar, and next-level VIP catering – including caviar and a mimosa bar – all add to the rider experience. Additionally, the entire event is live-streamed with free access to videos of all rounds and in-ring video boarding.

SRJT VIP; photo © Alden Corrigan Media

2020 will see some of the biggest changes yet as Split Rock Jumping Tour’s schedule continues to expand. Beyond the six venues and eight events the Tour will grow to include in 2020, the year will begin with the “Ante Up Grand Prix,” an exciting and unheard of concept in show jumping. The class, a 1.50–1.60m stand-alone event to be held at Karl Cook’s stunning Pomponio Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, California, will offer $1,500,000 in total prize money to fifteen invited riders. The winner will receive $1,000,000 – the single largest payday in the world – with $350,000 to second place and $150,000 to third.

Each of the invited riders will have the option of paying the $125,000 entry fee themselves (for a chance of keeping 100% of their potential winnings), or if they choose to have one of the sponsors (provided by SRJT) pay the entry fee, they will be able to keep 25% of any winnings. Invitees will include the top five riders on the Longines Show Jumping Rankings list, the top five American riders on the Longines Rankings and five wild card spots. The whole event will air live on NBC and Braun hopes a class of this caliber will help draw new fans and sponsors to the sport. This exciting class is just one example of Split Rock Jumping Tour’s mission to create “an unparalleled show jumping experience.”

The Tour will also run one of only eight Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ qualifiers to be held under the revised North American League schedule in 2020. This event, held in Fort Worth, Texas in December 2020, is the first international show jumping event to take place in the state, and Braun’s first indoor event. The stadium at Will Rodgers Coliseum holds around 6,000 people and Braun looks forward to bringing his exciting brand of show jumping and hospitality to a large-scale audience in a new way. “For sure it will be the biggest caliber event we have ever done. In that regard, we expect to have all of the best riders [competing],” said Braun.

Karrie Rufer and Mr. Europe; photo © Alden Corrigan Media

The Sonoma Horse Park Magic

“Sonoma Horse Park was the perfect fit for us. They pay attention to the details like we do,” said Braun, “The facility is set up perfectly for my format of horse shows, and the Northern California location is great. We get people down from Oregon, Washington and Vancouver to compete; everyone from Southern California can get to it easily; and the weather is perfect this time of year. It all makes for a very successful show.” All of these variables also make for the largest attendance of any SRJT show, something that incoming facility manager Sarah Appel is very happy about.

“We knew right off the bat that Split Rock Jumping Tour would be a great partner for Sonoma Horse Park. Over the past decade we have built trust with our clientele, and it was exciting to see them participate in, and enjoy, an event like SRJT at our venue.” Appel went on to speak of her joy in bringing a new experience to everyone who shows at SHP. “The loyal Sonoma Horse Park exhibitors have always been supportive of our trying new things. Whether it be our wild jumps and ribbons, or our exciting classes like Les Talents Hermès where you can win a trip to Paris, or the Equitation-Transportation Challenge that pairs up teams of riders to win amazing moving prizes, or the next-level hospitality that we offer weekly, we knew they would be supportive of the first FEI events at SHP.”

As the brand new facility manager, Appel also had a few thoughts regarding the future of Sonoma Horse Park. “Over the past decade the Herman family, with Ashley Herman at the helm, has created one of the top horse show venues in the country. I aspire not only to continue the wonderful traditions and high-level events they have created, but to also use my experience – from entry-level riding with the Campfire Girls, to competing on the ‘A’ circuit, to covering events at the 5* FEI level – to continue to bring exciting and innovative new events to Sonoma Horse Park.”

From Fist Pumps to Fine Wine: SRJT at SHP

The event itself was not to be missed, with something for every level of jumper rider (the 0.85m jumper champion Cash Delia was also the co-champion of the “Fist Pump” competition presented by Horse Flight), and featuring amazing food and fine wine in the VIP, as well as the ever-popular SRJT swag shop. Exhibitors and spectators alike found something unforgettable at Sonoma Horse Park throughout the first week of September. The two-ring competition featured young jumper classes and lower-level classes on one side of the VIP berm and international classes and upper-level open and amateur classes held on the other side of the berm in the Grand Prix Arena. During a typical Sonoma Horse Park event, the ring across the VIP berm hosts hunter and equitation classes – another fun change for SRJT.

Driving onto the grounds, riders were treated to a revamped SHP with Split Rock Jumping Tour flags decorating either side of the driveway. Riders enjoyed the new layout which included international flags and attractive sponsor banners that completely bordered both arenas, a special SRJT entry archway and a live video screen in the Grand Prix arena. The courses, designed by Alan Wade, provided new challenges West Coast riders do not often have the opportunity to experience. Throughout the week, West Coast riders and their horses stepped right up to answer Wade’s questions beautifully, showing that talent on the West Coast is always improving. A number of West Coast competitors earned top spots on the podium – even when up against top East Coast talent who had made SRJT the first stop on a West Coast fall tour. Another fun aspect of the SRJT events are the formal awards presentations for each and every class, with a podium, national anthem from the country of the winner, and a victory gallop for the top six horses.

Cash Delia and Nick Dello Joio, co-champions of the Fist Pump competition presented by Horse Flight; photo © Alden Corrigan Media

One major event that is unique to Split Rock Jumping Tour at Sonoma Horse Park is the Friday night Split Rock Gala presented by Big Bay City and benefiting Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center. The gala brought riders, sponsors and friends out in their best formal wear for a fun evening that included opportunities to learn more about Giant Steps’ mission, a wonderful speech by Big Bay City’s owner Kaley Cuoco (of “Big Bang Theory” fame), and upscale food and drinks by Preferred Sonoma Caterers. After dinner the lights were dimmed and riders hit the dance floor. Braun even created a private cabana on the fly, complete with velvet rope, for a patron who had made a large donation to Giant Steps – just to add to the “Club Sonoma” feel!

As previously mentioned, one standout rider of the week was Cash Delia on his buckskin pony Trewithian Hawkeweed. Delia not only led the victory gallop in the Friday 0.85m class, but also won the Sunday 0.85m Final by almost three seconds to stand at the top of the podium. He was also named co-champion of the Fist Pump competition alongside international show jumper Nick Dello Joio.

The Fist Pump competition sponsored by Horse Flight is a highlight of SRJT events. Throughout the week, riders vie for the honor of wearing a special neon green armband and the chance to earn a $500 cash bonus by showing the most enthusiasm, firing up the crowd, and displaying the best ‘fist pump’ during their winning rounds. As the week goes on, and the Fist Pump armband gets passed from rider to rider, excitement builds. The judges make a final determination on Sunday after the Grand Prix. At SRJT at SHP, the presentation was especially cute with a rather diminutive Delia sharing the podium with Dello Joio for the win picture.

The highlight of any horse show week is the Grand Prix, and in this case the $100,000 1.45m FEI Grand Prix presented by Horse Flight certainly did not disappoint. The course was challenging in all of the great ways that push riders and test horses but never ask unfair questions. Course designer Alan Wade had a strong field of horses and riders to work with overall, but even with some junior and amateur riders new to the international ranks, it was a fair test.

After 51 horses crossed the start timers there were ten clear rounds, making for a very exciting jump-off. It looked like Karrie Rufer, first to go in the jump-off, was going to hold the lead through the entire field of the nine remaining horses and riders with her very efficient clear on her up-and-coming star Mr. Europe (Mr. Blue x Cassini I). But third-to-last to go, Karl Cook on Fecybelle (Carambole x Sjapoo) snatched the lead away by 3/10 of second when he took the short track. For Cook, the week could not have been much better, taking two wins in the three FEI classes aboard Fecybelle. The 9-year-old mare is a new ride for Cook. His first FEI starts with her were in May and these were the first two international wins they had together. Keri Potter galloped to third place on Ariell La Sirene (Arioso du Theillet x Silvio I), a ten-year-old mare owned by Hannah Loly that also enjoyed her best international placing to date.

L-R: Kerri Rufer, Karl Cook and Keri Potter topped the podium after the Grand Prix; photo © Alden Corrigan Media

Celebratory champagne showers among the top three riders on the podium, followed by the victory gallop and naming of the Fist Pump award co-champions capped off an incredible week of fun and top competition at one of the best venues in the country. The Sonoma Horse Park mystique combined with the lively, unique spirit of Split Rock Jumping Tour to create a magical week enjoyed by riders, spectators, and sponsors alike. I would definitely recommend adding September in Sonoma to your calendar if you are looking for excellent prize money, great sport, amazing accommodations, top restaurants and fine wine tasting opportunities – not to mention top-level on-site hospitality and an all-around phenomenal experience.

This article was featured in our Fall ’19 issue. Read the full issue online here: Horse & Style Magazine, Fall 2019.